Damn Dragon

We have a little controversy brewing at work. As part of the streetscape rennovations in Old Town/Chinatown (a PDC project), eight lanterns are being installed as public art (the RACC part of the project). Each lantern contains a granite sculpture that is illumiated at night. (Four of these have been installed, and four more are yet to come). The project is described in further detail in this Fact Sheet.

Trouble is, one of the lanterns contains a sculpture of a dragon that many in the community are finding offensive (if not plain-old ugly). As you can see from this photograph that ran in the Portland Tribune on Friday, the dragon appears to be shackled at the throat. All of the lanterns are built with metal frames like this one, and this particular statue was originally conceived with an upward-facing dragon. However, some in the community noted that for cultural reasons the dragon needed to come from the sky, and the result was -- well, regretable.

I think RACC's public art panel process is quite good, and in this instance included local business-owners and other members of the Chinese American community -- apparently just not the right ones. Not sure they gave the artist the best advice in this case, or followed the finalized designs as thoroughly as they should have. Beyond the panel itself, and because of the cultural sensitivies involved, RACC had more public input on this project than any other in recent memory, but perhaps this "design-by-committee" bodes badly for any final product. The larger the committee, the more lackluster the art, you could argue. And apparently there's also a conflict of global proportions that feeds into this, having to do with the historic rift between Mainland China and Taiwanese Chinese, whose interpretations and symoblisms are quite different, but I won't get into that here because frankly I don't know enough about it. (Tell me more about this, if you know!)

In any case, negative reations are pretty widespread. The Mayor's Office, Sam Adams' Office, the PDC, and RACC are all receiving complaint letters. Fred Leeson's article in today's Oregonian is a good sumation of the situation, couched less hysterically than the Trib's article. (Although the public comments following the Tribune article are pretty good -- a little more thorough and thoughtful than the potty-mouth whine-o-rama going on at The Mercury.)

Update 12/7/06: RACC is working with the Ombudsman's office to arrange a faciliated forum for residents, businessowners, and other neighborhood stakeholders to share their concerns. Hopefully some resolution can come from having an open con-fab like this. Many are calling for removal of the dragon piece (or even the entire series), but I think the community should become familiar with RACC's deaccessioning policy in order to plead their case correctly. RACC doesn't just deaccession artwork because people think it's ugly. But there are some significant cultural issues at play in this case; it's a pretty unusual and extraordinary situation. Not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, whatever it is, but here's hoping someone will come up with something to make a lot of folks a little happier.

Update 12/16/06: After an initial meeting with some members of the Chinese community, RACC is working to schedule a community open forum for sometime in early January. Meanwhile, some responses to the initial Tribune article appear here, and the Mercury has provided an update as well. Indeed it is possible that the offending dragon may be removed after some reasonable discussions takes place. But I think it's pretty funny that one lady (in her letter to the Tribune) has called for the removal of all public officials as a result of this debacle. SAY WA???

Update 12/21/06: Interested citizens are invited to attend a public meeting to discuss the sculptures. The facilitated event will be held on Monday, January 8th at 7 pm at Legin Restaurant, 8001 SE Division St. A Chinese interpreter will be available. For more information visit www.racc.org or call 503-823-5111.


C said...

Jeff, thanks for posting this info - very interesting to hear about your / RACC's POV.

Deaccessioning is a very touchy issue with public art. I've read the RACC policy now - thanks for this, my two cents is that I have an opinion of one, just one, and an aesthetic sense of just one. The measure must be more than appearance - which just makes your task and the task of the artists & panels all the more complicated, to be timely and responsive, and yet to consider the long future of some of these sturdy works.

Who's on the deaccessioning panel?

culturejock said...

C: I believe the Public Art Advisory Committee is responsible for deaccessionment.

(From RACC:) The Public Art Advisory Committee [PAAC], comprised of a RACC board member, artists, architects, and arts professionals, is responsible for making recommendations to the full Regional Arts & Culture Council on all matters of public art. Among the committee’s responsibilities are overseeing the Public Art Program and developing policies and goals for the selection, placement and maintenance of artwork acquired through the Percent for Art program; reviewing new public art projects; recommending selection committee members; approving artist selections by project panels; considering donations of artwork to the City, County and Metro; reviewing proposed memorials; and promoting public education and advocacy.

I don't have the list of the FY06-07 PAAC members in front of me, but I found this list of LAST year's PAAC in RACC's annual report posted at http://www.racc.org/about/. The new annual report will be posted in a week or two... let's check out the FY06-07 list then.

FY06-06 PAAC:

Lois Allen
Pat Boas
Stephen Hayes
Hector Hernandez
Shelley Jordan
Dennis Katayama
Mike McCulloch
Randy Miller
Stephanie Snyder
Jayne Stamm
Dorie Vollum

culturejock said...

A revision to what I said earlier.

A deaccessioning panel is convened by the PAAC as needed. There is no standing committee.